Jul 152011

Kudos to ZCorp for their recent new video reaching a lot of people (3.9 million views on YouTube as of this writing) who clearly had never heard of 3d printing before.

However, all these 3D noobs blathering on about “wow! 3D printing is brand new!” and “star trek replicators are real!” is really becoming irritating.  The fact that hoax authority Snopes.com even felt a need to publish a “Not a hoax” article on 3D printing is kinda sad.

MIT developed powder bed 3D printing at least 20 years ago.  Patents date from the early to mid 90’s.  ZCorp (a nearly exclusive licensee of the MIT patents) has been in business shipping boutique machines (a 600 pound $45k printer isn’t exactly retail) for at least 10 years that I know of.

Yes, 3D printing is real, and has been implemented in a variety of different ways by a variety of vendors. (MakerBot polymer extrusion, electron beam sintering of metal powder, laser sintering of nylon powder, clay powder deposition for ceramic parts, etc)  These machines haven’t made much headway into the public awareness largely because most of them are hellaciously expensive and therefore marketed to very targeted high-end design and industrial clients. That hand-held 3D digitizing scanner shown in the ZCorp video, for example, will set you back about $25,000.  You’ll need $15,000 to get  a “cheap” bare bones small powder printer, or more like $45,000 to get a nice one with full color capability. And don’t forget the annual service contract!  It’s definitely not pennies per day.

The price of the machines has been coming down in recent years  (hmm.  Should we buy a new car or a 3D printer?), but the price of the materials / consumables has been going up.  Like inkjet printer makers, ZCorp almost certainly makes more on selling consumables (and service/maintenance contracts) than on selling the hardware itself.  ZCorp states costs for consumables run $2-$3 per rendered cubic inch for powder and binder. Binder fluid costs hundreds of dollars per gallon.  Setting up a new machine with powder and binder fluid will set you back nearly $2000. Gillette would be proud.

Any time you have a service or product demand that requires expensive hardware or expertise, service bureaus will pop up to harvest that demand. Shapeways has been  producing small objects for jewelry or decorative uses for a couple of years now. I’m quite surprised that the ZCorp videos appear to have had greater success in introducing 3D printing to the public than Shapeways products and business model. Perhaps people are more enchanted by the making than by the result?

The maker community has made great progress on figuring out and documenting how industrious individuals can build their own 3D printing aparatii for a less than a home mortgage.  The MakerShed store sells polymer extruder based kits with x/y gantry assemblies for under $1500. There are multiple open source initiatives in play, such as RepRap.org and FabAtHome. However, they still have a long way to go to catch up to the level of detail and service conveniences offered by ZCorp and other “big guys”. You get what you pay for.

Though 3D printing equipment and materials have improved greatly in recent years, 3D printing is still in its infancy as a technology. Even with a whizzy new ZCorp machine, it’s not quite as simple as the marketing video would lead you to believe.

However, I will admit that after fighting with clogged printheads ruining a build, destroying fragile parts while manually depowdering them, and spending hours infiltrating the piece with resin to make it strong enough for everyday handling, there is still enough joy left at the end of the process to call the whole experience magical.